A Rueful Observation

A Rueful Observation

Published: May 14, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Mother's Day coincided this year with the reading from the conclusion to the gospel of Mark. The Myrrh-bearing women fearfully approach the tomb of Jesus only to find the stone rolled away and an angel telling the women not to be afraid but to go and preach the good news to the disciples that their crucified friend and teacher has been raised from the dead. The passage ends not with the women preaching the good news, but going away in silence, “for they were afraid.” This is the original conclusion of the gospel attested to in the earliest manuscripts, not the later addition which might make us all feel better but which also undermines the power of this gospel. The Gospel of Mark presents to us the tension of fear versus faith, calling us to step out of our natural fear into a faith grounded in the Resurrection which, as Fr. Paul so beautifully reminded us, makes all things new, all things possible.

I was a bit derailed from this message rather early on in the sermon by what I incorrectly thought was a throw-away comment: The myrrh-bearers “came to perform a sacred task that it has fallen to women of every generation to perform: to receive and tend to the bodies of men broken by violence. When men have done their worst, women have often been the ones called upon to give as much gentleness, as much tenderness, as much dignity to their end as can be given.” I say “throw-away” because the sermon itself did not return to this theme. I had two reactions to the comment which I wrote up that afternoon and emailed to Fr. Paul. Not only did he read them, but he gave a very thought-provoking response. So first, let me present my initial reactions which are valid but misdirected. Then let me say how I was, well, wrong.

A Disingenuous Compliment?

First, extolling the special dignity of women as mothers who embody gentleness and tenderness is meant as a compliment to women. This compliment is a cornerstone of John Paul II’s Mulieres Dignitatem, as well as the work of Paul Evdokimov (who preceded JPII) in Women and the Salvation of the World. It is however, a rather disingenuous compliment. It is a compliment because who would not want to embody the most Christian of virtues: mercy, compassion, kindness, love, hope and self-control? Evdokimov hopes to elevate these ‘womanly’ virtues and given them the honor they (both the women and the virtues) are due. It is disingenuous because we seem to take neither the virtues nor the women that embody them seriously. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, the priest is called to lead people into virtue by modeling virtue. So why is it that we are led by men? Why is it that we trust men to teach virtues which they apparently do not embody, from the pulpit or from a book? Our priests, teachers and theologians are almost entirely men. If women more naturally embody these virtues, then it is women who should model and teach them to men, not the other way around. This is a compliment to women in words only, not in reality. In the end, Evdokimov simply reinscribes the same role for women with which he began, exemplified in the silent and compassionate, ever-virgin Mother of God, the Theotokos.

Second, this ‘compliment’ denigrates men. It implies that true ‘manhood’ is not about compassion, mercy, kindness and love. To be a real man is not to be these things, but to be pitiless, unmerciful, cruel and filled with hate. Men are aggressive and dangerous, and left to their own devices they would destroy the world, just as they crucified Christ. Really? Is this how we are supposed to understand manhood? How can we not weep at this very idea? By implying that these vices embody real manhood, we allow men to continue in a false understanding of themselves. Instead of calling men to practice Christian virtues, we imply that perhaps women will simply have to do it on their behalf. Women are, after all, the salvation of the world, not men. We let men off the hook, relieving them of their responsibility to be human.

Evdokimov’s title is wrong, women ARE NOT the salvation of the world. If this idea did not permeate twentieth-century Orthodox theology, it would be laughable in both its romantic foolishness and its flirtation with heresy. It is romantic and foolish because it posits a false idealization of womanhood. It is almost heresy because women do not save, only God through Christ in the Spirit saves. Further, it splits the unity of virtue into supposedly ‘male’ and ‘female’ virtues. Christ did not call his women disciples to one kind of faith and humanity, and his male disciples to another. It does us no service to falsely idealize one sex and foolishly relieve the other of responsibility. Instead, we must recognize our shared virtues and vices.

No, a “rueful observation”

Robert Lentz: Madre De Los Desaparecidos
<span">Robert Lentz: Madre De Los Desaparecidos

My legitimate frustration with Evdokimov clouded an even more disturbing reality. Fr. Paul returned to the theme of women receiving back the bodies of men destroyed by violence not during the sermon, but at the end of the liturgy. In order to celebrate Mother’s Day, he read Julia Ward Howe’s original Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870. Fr. Paul noted (in his email response) that Howe’s point is “that women have a particular calling or grace of restraining violence in the world as women, and especially as mothers. She is saying that women have received back the dead and damaged long enough, and that the time has come to do something about it.” Howe’s grief at unjustified and unnecessary violence and her call to action is echoed in the footsteps of Las Madres de Plaza De Mayo. The violence against which Howe protests and Las Madres march is overwhelmingly perpetrated by, and often against, men. The U.S. Government statistics on homicide by gender only underscore the point. Fr. Paul’s comment was not meant as a compliment towards women, but “more of a rueful observation” into which he does not invest any theological meaning.

Here then, is my problem: I would prefer to ignore the unavoidable reality of a difference between men and women because it so easily to leads to proscribed roles which do not reflect the diverse reality of how men and women actually live their lives outside these roles. How do we confront the reality that violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, that it is women who are so often left to received the bruised and broken bodies of their loved ones, without investing theological meaning into the supposedly inherent (read: ‘ontological’ for all you theologians out there) virtues of men and women? Is this even possible? On the one hand, as Christians, we are called to a life of virtue that does not respect our sex. On the other hand, we are embodied as men and women in a social context, perhaps even (and I say this with not a bit of fear and trembling) a biology, which forms us in particular ways.

We cannot simply pull ourselves out of reality by claiming that virtue is asexual (oh, how I wish we could, it would make my job sooo much easier!). Is it simply true that in the face of violence perpetrated by men, women have responded (whether by choice or last resort) with mercy? Are we thus more merciful? In another universe, perhaps the tables would be turned, but we don’t live in another universe, we live in this one. Is this a description of reality, or a prescription for reality? For Evdokimov, it is the latter and it is best fulfilled in particular roles which are exclusive to sex. I believe such roles tend to hurt some men and women. But how do we fulfill our call to practice a unified virtue while still embedded in our apparently divided lives, culture, and bodies? Surely we should not be content with the lopsided distribution of virtue reflected in our world.

What is does this look like in a resurrected world (by which I do not mean the eschaton) in which all things are possible?


Wed, 21 May, 2008 - 14:47

I've read this several times and I have to admit, even through several conversations with you, I am still trying to figure out what I think about gender differences, what is real difference and what is that which we impose on gender. I think you'd agree that there is a difference between ways of being different genders, yes? But "more merciful" is not what you think is inherent in women but not men. Perhaps I need a description of what the differences are as you see them. Even though you'd prefer to ignore it. :-)

But then it seems I'm not the only one still trying to wrap my head around this issue.